BBC Radio Foyle’s Michael Bradley explains why so many people loved Gerry Anderson, even if they hated his music taste...
In 1990, I found myself outside a betting shop in Melbourne, Australia. On one side of me was Sean Coyle. On the other was Gerry Anderson.
We had just placed one hundred dollars each-way on a horse called Mirabeau’s Phantom, running in the sixth race at Flemington. A docker that we had interviewed the day before had given us a wire. “Sixth horse, sixth race,” he’d confided.
As we stood in the sunshine, waiting for the result, Gerry turned to me and said: “Do you realise we’re using BBC money to put a bet on a horse?”
We were in Australia to record five editions of The Gerry Anderson Show.
Gerry was seven years into his broadcasting career and had established himself and Sean as the funniest duo on the radio. His entry to the BBC was in 1983, when he became the editor of a community magazine in Derry. Almost the first thing he did was a recorded interview on BBC Radio Foyle’s afternoon magazine show, hosted by Libby Hunter. Producer Maureen Gallagher did the interview, asking the usual questions about the new edition (and the new editor), which he answered in an entertaining and informative manner.
Of course, he hadn’t a clue about what was actually in the magazine.
After the red light went off, she said: “That was the greatest bit of spoofing I’ve ever heard – you’re in the wrong job.”
He was. But not for long.
Maureen asked him to write and present a weekly diary piece for Libby’s show.
That summer, she also arranged for him to stand in as a summer replacement for Don O’Doherty, a veteran of Derry’s showbusiness scene and one of the stars of the fledgling BBC Radio Foyle.
It was a disaster. Audiences in factories and shops, more used to hearing Irish melodies and the Top 40, were instead treated to Gerry’s own taste in records.
They weren’t amused. A pattern was set. I first encountered Gerry Anderson when he was playing bass guitar with Toe Jam, a heavy rock trio revered by the knowledgeable music fan in Derry.
His band was very supportive of the (as yet unnamed) Undertones, lending equipment and offering tips on drumming to Billy Doherty. We played support to Toe Jam on New Year’s Eve 1977. The same year that U2 supported Toe Jam at a show in Dublin. I suspect neither performance really registered with Gerry or the rest of Toe Jam.
In one of Anderson’s many stories about his past, his band was described by Horslips as The Most Drunken Band We’d Ever Seen. He relayed that title with pride.
In 1986, three years after The Undertones disbanded, I found myself doing the occasional show on BBC Radio Foyle, with additional duties like answering the phones on The Gerry Anderson Show, now established as one of BBC Radio Ulster’s most listened to programmes.
In the absence of a university education, my time with Gerry and Sean taught me so much about the important things in life. From the story behind Rick Nelson’s record Garden Party (musical integrity versus fans’ wishes) to famous figures in Derry’s musical history (Jumpin’ Johnny Lee, boy can he jump!) to the social history of the North West (American sailors, ladies of the night, overcrowded houses), being in Gerry’s company was a lesson delivered with grace, wit and humour.
Talking on the phone to the great Ulster public was another education. One year, a listener suggested to Gerry that he should encourage his “punters” to come up with slogans for towns and villages across Northern Ireland. ‘Have You Got The Bottle To Shop In Ahogill?’ is one that has stayed with me ever since.
I was very much the junior member of the Gerry Anderson team. I had been on Top Of The Pops, I had a successful music career behind me, but I was the boy among men. Gerry and Sean swapped stories of old showbands, Derry characters, Derry streets, Derry shops ... all lost in the history of the city.
Gerry had even renamed the place where I grew up. By 1986, he had developed the alternative title for Derry – or Londonderry, depending on your inclination. Using the ambivalent creation of the community relations industry, “Derry/Londonderry”, he decided to take it to the next logical step: “Derry Stroke Londonderry”. From there, it was a matter of convenience to refer to the city where we were born, where we grew up, where we now lived, as “Stroke City”.
Some people were very annoyed at this. Some people saw it as some kind of sell-out of his background. Others recognised it for what it was: a neat sidestepping of an intractable problem, giving us a new name for a city with two old names, which doubled as a sly dig at the political differences that were still the currency of the news in the outside world.
Gerry and Sean had a relationship that was both convivial and complicated. In the 1960s, when Gerry was a member of the Chessmen, an Irish showband who were a cut above the usual ballroom outfit, Sean was a fan. He later confessed that sometimes he would follow Gerry around the streets of Derry, marvelling at his style and his rock and roll demeanour.
By 1984, Sean was a fan of the radio show, listening at home while lying on the sofa watching the snooker. Through Brian Mullen, a childhood friend of Sean who did a folk music show on BBC Radio Foyle, a recording of Sean’s impersonation of Barry McGuigan was left on Gerry’s desk. Within months, Sean was a regular provider of impressions for the show. By the time I joined, Sean was still very much in the background – in the studio next door he was filtering phonecalls, recording pieces written by Gerry, writing notes on a piece of paper for Gerry to read out on air.
Within a few years, Gerry was throwing open the microphone next door, allowing Sean to respond to each passing thought that came from the fertile mind of Mr Anderson. And what a mind.
He created a version of Seamus Heaney, a ponderous poet who bore little resemblance to the real Nobel Laureate. Anderson’s Heaney wrote poetry that meandered, that didn’t rhyme and that was, to be honest, rubbish. Gerry also came up with the Dungiven Car Salesman, who would sell you a lovely wee car with an overhead c-a-a-a-m shaft driven by one wee woman who hardly took her out at all.
Behind the glass, Sean graduated from Barry McGuigan to Daniel O’Donnell, Denis Taylor, Ronnie Flanagan (“I may have been on Gerry Anderson’s show, but I have no recollection of it”) and Pat Jennings, in a voice so deep the BBC Radio Foyle’s foundations shook. But as the show progressed, Sean also took on the role of the puncturer of Gerry’s more fanciful bubbles. Anderson’s story of the man who was so drunk he ate through the bottom of his bag of chips and into his knuckles, thinking they were pig’s trotters, was told with great relish. “Never happened,” said Coyle.
Gerry shrugged it off and went on to the next story.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I was so drunk the band put me on the luggage carousel at the airport and I went round and round before I woke up?”
“Do you know, I think I am the only Radio Ulster presenter who has ever offered chips to prostitutes?”
“Mr Coyle, I have made a decision. I will keep my Elvis Presley story until I’m on the Late Late Show.”
Gerry Anderson wore his learning lightly. A childhood spent in a busy city-centre home, listening to the radio and reading everything he could get his hands on, became the foundation for a life spent soaking up culture and comedy from all around the world.
He hung out with Bob Dylan, loaned money to Phil Lynott in a toilet in Dublin and told Queen Elizabeth II that she had a lovely house.
All that material found its way to radios across Northern Ireland. And we were better off for it. Almost two years ago, Gerry told me about his illness and that he was about to go into hospital for an operation. I had a similar experience seven years before, so I did my best to reassure him that it was going to be okay.
He was nervous, but faced the future with his usual breezy confidence. We thought he’d be off air for two months. Easily explained, I thought. We’ll say he’s writing another book. (He was a great writer, of course). Sean would stand in, play records that people actually liked (and which Gerry hated) and by the New Year of 2013 he would return, just in time to guide us through Stroke City’s term as UK City of Culture.
It wasn’t to be as simple as that. Gerry’s desk in the corner, the one where he would set up shop every morning with a single gravy ring, the day’s papers and a bunch of listeners’ letters, remained empty throughout the year. In spite of Sean’s explanation that Gerry was going to England for a trial with Wolverhampton Wanderers, or that he was building an extension to his house, questions were asked by listeners about his absence.
“When’s Gerry coming back?” is a question that Sean Coyle, Janet Sheerin and I have been answering for many many months.
“Gerry is off ill at the moment. He has asked for his privacy to be respected, and as soon as he’s better he’ll be back on air” was the answer we gave. Until this week, when it became clear that he wouldn’t be coming back.
And Mirabeau’s Phantom? It finished second, so we got the BBC’s money back. And the bosses never found out.